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Job-seekers with disabilities have long-endured pre-judgment about what they can and cannot do because they navigate the world differently from most. In reality, access features built in to commonly used technology can facilitate inclusion of people with disabilities in the workplace. But as the innovation behind accessible technology evolves, progress is stagnant when it comes to integrating inclusive technology in the workplace. It’s easy to get stuck in the trap of looking for limitations when considering people with disabilities, but the real limitations are in the environments in which we live and work.
Cynthia Overton and Jason Harris
People with disabilities have made the case for readily accessible technology for years. It’s been a long journey, but more and more tech companies are engaging computer scientists proficient in access standards, along with UX researchers skilled in inclusive methodologies. As a result, technology that aligns with access standards is on the rise. Although we haven’t realized full access quite yet (click here to learn more), many people with disabilities have greater access to technology than in years past.
Some tech companies are going beyond basic access by developing technologies that can transform experiences for people with disabilities. Artificial intelligence (AI) that describes surroundings can support social engagement and offer access to environmental print for people with disabilities. AI can also be used to provide on-demand captioning to promote everyday conversation. This type of innovation, developed in collaboration with people with disabilities, has the potential to lead to greater integration in both professional and social settings.
But developing technology that is accessible and useful to people with disabilities is not the end game. There’s so much potential for technology to facilitate inclusion for this population in everyday settings--particularly when it comes to employment. People with disabilities have long-endured pre-judgment about what they can and cannot do because they navigate society differently than most. How can someone who has limited mobility teach at some of the most prestigious universities in the world? How can someone who is blind be a software engineer? How can someone who is Deafblind be a Harvard-trained attorney? Dr. Victor Pineda, Saqib Shakh, and Haben Girma are just a few examples of people who have used accessible technology to pursue their professional interests.
The challenge, however, is that while the innovation behind technology is evolving, progress is stagnant when it comes to integrating inclusive technology in everyday settings like the workplace. Many of the products developed by tech giants are born accessible. But access features are underutilized in mainstream environments.
What will it take for workplace settings to integrate accessible technology? More vision, innovative thinking, and direction from corporate leadership. This involves leaders expanding their zeal for technology that leads to better product development to integrating accessible technology that can expand the workforce to include people with disabilities while leading to greater productivity for everyone.
Now if you don’t have a disability, don’t know a person with a disability, or don’t even cross paths with a person with a disability from time to time, this may seem like someone else’s issue. But you’re closer to technology that engages people with disabilities than you think. Take, for example, voice recognition technology, which has been used for decades by people with disabilities. This type of innovation is now embedded in mainstream technology like Apple’s Siri, Google’s Voice, and Amazon’s Alexa.
So what does it mean to integrate accessible technology throughout the workplace? Procurement offices ensure that they purchase workforce software that aligns with access standards. Team leaders encourage staff to incorporate strategies that support engagement among people who are Deaf or hard of hearing, like microphones, CART, and even voice recognition technology like that found in Microsoft Translator. Professional development staff promotes built-in access features like screen-reading applications to support those with print-based disabilities like dyslexia and vision impairments. Facilities can even play a role in shaping how we think about inclusive technology by incorporating accessible activities in workplace collision spaces. These are just a few examples of how to promote accessible technology in the workplace—the possibilities become endless as technology evolves.
A workforce operating with inclusive technologies doesn't just expand opportunities for people with disabilities—it can lead to residual benefits that impact everyone. Think about the physical environment. Automated door openers support people with physical disabilities, but benefit anyone with their hands full. The same concept applies to workplace productivity technology. Teams can use transcripts from CART and other technologies to capture notes. Increased awareness of screen-reading technology presents opportunities for audio learners and multi-taskers to access information more efficiently. For some, voice recognition software can be a faster way to compose text than using a standard keyboard. The takeaway is not to be prescriptive by simply replicating these or other strategies. Rather, we must consider the needs and habits of a workforce comprised of individuals who operate differently and create an environment that is responsive to those differences.
Perhaps the most compelling reason to transform workplace environments with the active use of accessible technology involves the prospect of us all transitioning into disability due to age, injury, or illness if we live long enough. With the average age of retirement increasing, we’re in the position to benefit our older-selves by creating a workplace environment that can respond to our changing needs with technology. Think about it like eating vegetables, saving money, and flossing everyday. It’s hard to appreciate the benefits early on, but they’re bound to help you live better as you age.
We’ve reached an era in which identifying solutions to everyday issues is a basic expectation. It’s easy to get stuck in the trap of looking for limitations when considering people with disabilities, but the real limitations are in the environments in which we live and work. The same creative thinking that leads to new innovation should also be used to remove access barriers with inclusive technology. Making these investments now will expand our workforce to be inclusive of people who live with disabilities today, and help sustain employment opportunities for those who transition into disability later in life.
Founder of Jason’s Connection – an online resource for those with disabilities, mental health, aging and other needs. Jason was awarded an M.S. in Cultural Foundations of Education and Advanced Certificate in Disability Studies from Syracuse University. Jason is also a Project Coordinator and Research Associate at the Burton Blatt Institute, an international think tank for Disability Rights and Human Justice at Syracuse University. He regularly contributes to the blog in his own series called Jason’s View and travels the country consulting and speaking about disability issues and rights. To read more from Jason Harris, read Jason's View.